My wife Blu and I recently made our first trip back to America in three years. We were held back from travel, mostly by the COVID lockdown. In the third week of our trip, we were invited to the dedication of the new sanctuary of the Young Israel of North Riverdale. The shul was created by a merger of a Young Israel and an Ohab Zedek congregation, hence it is commonly known in the community as YIOZ. It turned out to be an exhilarating experience — not least of which because of the remarkable upgrade of the women’s space at YIOZ.
When Blu and I arrived, we found that the YIOZ sanctuary had been rebuilt during the pandemic. To our delight, the layout was remodeled so that the women’s section was of the same quality as the men’s. It had equal sight lines, equal acoustics, equal access to the service — equally soft, inviting seats! I have no doubt that special credit goes to Rabbi Shmuel Hain, the spiritual leader of the congregation for his sensitivity and savvy (and to the laymen who adopted this plan, for here was a statement of open invitation and warm welcome to anyone and everyone to come in, including women.
While we were thrilled by the improvement in the women’s section, we were both struck by the general lag in such improvements in other Modern Orthodox shuls. I told Rabbi Hain that when plans were underway to rebuild the Riverdale Jewish Center, the shul where I had served as rabbi, I had not managed to convince the leadership to reconfigure the layout to reflect women’s new dignity. (By then, I was a member, not the rabbi.)
Similarly, when the Ramban shul in Jerusalem renovated its sanctuary in the last decade, though its outstanding liberal spiritual leader Rabbi Benny Lau pushed for a reconfiguration of the women’s section, the laypeople told him it was not doable. At the recommendation of a special women’s committee appointed to review the issue, the women’s section remained in the balcony. But the location underscores that women are, at best, bystanders in the prayer service.
The gap between the limited gains in upgrading women’s space in Orthodox synagogues and the extraordinary progress of Orthodox women in Jewish learning is disappointing, to say the least.
In January 2020, we went to a Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas (completion of learning the entire Talmud by studying one page daily in a seven-and-a-half-year cycle) under the auspices of Hadran, an organization that promotes daily Talmud study session for women, and is spearheaded by a woman scholar, Rabbanit Michelle Farber of Ra’anana. The siyum was the first known mass completion of the Shas study cycle by women in Jewish history. The event was a remarkable exhibition of the explosion of women’s advanced rabbinic learning in our time.
Until the 19th century, Jewish women were not particularly educated. Religious women picked up the Jewish learning and law they needed to keep a kosher home or meet the requirements of taharat hamishpacha (family purity laws that govern sexuality in Halacha) from their mothers by oral transmission and concrete practice.
Modernity brought new dignity to women. This included education for a large and growing percentage of women. The traditional Jewish authorities realized that religious families were sending their daughters to public and, increasingly, higher education, which in turn was becoming a one-way ticket to modernization, secularization, and leaving tradition behind.
The great pioneer in Jewish women’s religious education, Sarah Schenirer, convinced traditional leadership that they must offer women a religious education or lose them to the culture that gave them greater dignity and intellectual development. In 1917, she created the Bais Yaakov school system for traditional women. Yet even she accepted the regnant principle, derived from the Talmud, that “kol hamelamed et bito Torah k’eylu melamdah tiflut” [whoever teaches his daughter Torah — understood to mean Talmud and advanced rabbinic learning — is as if he is teaching her licentiousness]. The reasoning behind this prohibition is too complicated to incorporate here, but the bottom line is that even at Bais Yaakov, which offered substantial Jewish learning, women did not study Talmud or advanced rabbinic literature.
It remained for Orthodox feminists, later in the 20th century, demanding equality, to unlock the door to the treasure house of advanced rabbinic learning to women. Women like Blu Greenberg, who led the charge, were playing off the admission of women to advanced academic and professional scholarship in the general society. Orthodox Jews should be grateful to modern culture for stimulating advances in women’s standing in Jewish religion.
To be fair, in the 1940s, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik did introduce Talmud study for women in his day school, Maimonides School in Boston, largely because the school was coed in order to win over Jewish parents who were wary of leaving public education and risk depriving their children of full Americanization. Some 35 years later, a student of Rabbi Soloveitchik, Rabbi David Silber, created Drisha Institute, offering women students full access to the rabbinic canon at the highest level. The explosion in women’s talmudic and halachic learning at the level of mastery followed — both in America and Israel.
Of all the areas of equalization that Orthodox feminists called for — including prayer and Torah reading, leadership, legal rights and status, language and discourse — advanced rabbinic learning has faced the least resistance and had the most follow-through in Modern Orthodox circles. Sadly, Haredi schools still deny women the opportunity for advanced rabbinic studies. Moreover, Rabbi Mordechai Willig, one of the successors to Rabbi Soloveitchik as rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, prohibited recognizing Orthodox women as rabbis (or maharats, as some are called). He said that, in his judgment, the fact that learned women were claiming the title of “rabbi” indicated that giving women access to advanced rabbinic learning may have been a mistake.
Whatever the resistance, the genie of women’s advanced Jewish learning could not be put back in the bottle. The outcome is that this generation is the most advanced, religiously learned generation of women in all of Jewish history. They are in the tradition of Bruria and Rashi’s daughters, yet surely the 100 most religiously learned Jewish women of all time were born in the past century or are alive right now.
And yet, despite the great inroads of Orthodox Jewish feminism, the architecture of Modern Orthodox shuls has lagged behind. The vast majority of modern Orthodox shuls were built before the growth of Orthodox feminism. Reflecting that fact, the women’s section is not just separated by a mechitzah (separation partition), but the sight lines for women and the acoustics for sharing the prayers and sermon are typically inferior to those in the men’s section. In many, if not most, shuls, sitting in the women’s section gives the feeling of being distant viewers of the service. All the religious action is on the men’s side. Although official Modern Orthodox ideology affirms that women are equal — regardless of their marginal status in the prayer service — the architecture attests to the fact that women are treated like second-class citizens, no matter how learned or engaged they are.
Of course, the generalization is what made our experience at YIOZ remarkable. I repeated to Rabbi Hain what I told Rabbi Avi Weiss back in 1974, when he built the new sanctuary of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale after 20 years of functioning in rented space. HIR provided more than equal sightlines, acoustics, and the like. The seating arrangement made women feel fully a part of the service and integrated into the praying congregation. In HIR to this day, there are women rabbis, speakers, sermonizers, and participant roles for women in the services.
I told Rabbi Weiss then (and Rabbi Hain now) that their sanctuaries truly honored the tzelem Elokim (image of God/equality) of women. These sanctuaries are among a handful of Orthodox synagogues in which an Orthodox Jew is permitted to pray l’chatchilah (a priori, without reservation), and not b’dieved (only as a last resort) both for men and women.
I pray that in the next generation, the architecture will catch up with the culture, so that every shul space will reflect the extraordinary religious gains of Modern Orthodox women.